How to Organize Your Legal Files

How to Organize Your Legal Files – A Guide for Law Frims

Introduction to Organizing Your Legal Files

Organizing documents and files is hard.

That’s probably even more true for law firms, who not only live and breathe files and documents, but (perhaps more than others) need to constantly keep documents organized, trackable and searchable.

When you start as a solo law practice, files and documents typically start very organized.  You create folders per client or per matter and maybe create subfolders to organize by type (contracts, motions, etc.)  Nice and simple.

But as your client list and your team grow, inevitably, your perfect file structure starts to show cracks.  People don’t always follow your structure.  Special cases have special circumstances.  Over time, your simple, tidy legal file organizational structure turns into a giant mess of files and folders.  

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Law Offices of Nathan Cobb

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You shouldn’t feel too bad–it happens to almost every law firm sooner or later.

But you should invest the time into fixing it; into setting up a system that will stand the test of time, and scale up no matter how many documents, clients, matters or coworkers you throw at it.

It’s time to truly organize your legal files. Many law firms struggle to implement and then maintain a filing system for the incredible amount of documents and files they generate each day. Luckily, there’s a better way.

The best system for any growing law office includes a combination of two simple but important elements:

  1. Software tools to create and enforce structure, and:
  2. Best practices your team can follow to keep things organized and accessible.

You’ll find everything you need to get started right here in this guide.

Why You Should Upgrade Your Legal Filing System

Files aren’t going away. Every contract, client intake form, NDA, police report (you get the picture) is critical to your work. A simplified and organized legal filing system can ensure you have easy access to these files at all times. As a result, you and your team can:

  • Save time: Every minute you spend trying to track down a legal document is a minute stolen from more important work. A simplified filing system enables you to locate the files you need quickly.
  • Improve the client experience: Have you ever had to ask a client to resend a document you couldn’t locate? Maybe you’ve been late to a client meeting because you had to track down a file. These issues create unnecessary friction for your client who may already be going through an emotional and stressful situation. An improved filing system can eliminate these issues.
  • Reduce in-office frustration: Legal teams are often frustrated by how difficult it is to track down the information required to do their jobs. And these seemingly small issues can have a direct impact on team morale. An updated filing system can help.
  • Prep your law firm for growth: Even if you feel your file storage method is doable for now, it might not be in the future. Growing firms will always see an increase in files. And without proper storage, it’s inevitable that things will get out of hand. Prepare for growth now by implementing a simple storage system.

Organizing your legal files is an important part of an overarching framework of process & procedure for your law firm.  Learn more:

Related:  The Ultimate Guide to Law Firm Process & Procedure.

Law Firm File Organization in the Cloud

We believe the best way forward for any law firm is to use the tech we have available at our fingertips. Work revolves around computers and mobile devices. Your files should be no different. For optimum file storage and organization, we recommend taking a paperless law firm approach by utilizing the cloud.

The Benefits of Going Paperless (or Paper-Lite)

A Note About “Paperless” vs. “Paper-Lite”

We know that some documents such as court-issued documents must remain in paper form. And sometimes, going 100% paperless may not be practical for every firm. In these cases, paper-lite is a great option. This means keeping physical paper documents only when necessary. Just be sure to keep an electronic copy too.

We know that the phrase “going paperless” can strike fear into the hearts of those who have used paper files exclusively since the start of their practices. However, trust us when we say that the benefits outweigh any apprehension you may feel. For example, eliminating paper can:

  • Improve your file organization: By going paperless, you can organize your legal files by matter and easily maintain consistency. You can quickly find a file with just a few clicks. No hour-long search required.
  • Ensure file security: Your law firm documents contain critical client information that’s your responsibility to protect. And paper documents are susceptible to everything from fire to theft. A cloud-based, paperless system protects your files using features such as backups and encryption.
  • Enable you to work from anywhere: If the past couple of years has taught us anything, it’s this: Work should be able to be completed from anywhere. Whether you’re in your home office or the law office, your files must be available to you. The only way to make that happen is through the cloud.
  • Help you meet client expectations: Did you know that your clients expect you to be paperless? It’s true. More and more people appreciate the ability to fill out electronic forms or sign documents electronically. You must meet these expectations to keep clients coming back.

Get the Checklist:  Download our Law Firm File Organization Checklist and implement an air-tight system for organizing matters and documents.

Get the Checklist →

The Basic Process for Going Paperless (or Paper-Lite) in Your Law Firm

If you wish to move forward with moving your files to the Cloud, there are some basic steps you must take for success:

  • 1. Develop a workflow: You must determine how documents enter your firm and how they’ll be processed. For example, when you receive a document, what is the process that follows? Typically, this means scanning and saving the file to a document management system.
  • 2. Set up your hardware and software: Additional hardware is required to go paperless, including scanners, mobile scanners, and electronic signature tools. You’ll also want Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software to convert scanned documents from image-based files to text-based files for easy index and search. We recommend also selecting a document management system (DMS) that includes OCR and other critical management tools. We dive deeper into DMS solutions below.
  • 3. Know what you’re doing with hard copies: Define your retention policy for hard copies. For example, this could be 30 days after a matter is closed.
  • 4. Migrate your existing documents to the cloud: You’ll need to “back-fill” your legal documents and matters by scanning and filing them into your new software. Start by scanning the documents you need quick access to first and refrain from creating new paper documents.

RelatedThe Paperless Law Firm.  Read our comprehensive guide on going paperless.

Legal Filing System Tools: Basic Cloud Storage vs. a DMS

With the philosophy covered, next, let’s dive into the practice side of setting up a legal filing system that will stand the test of time.

We’ve described how software tools will play a central role in your well-organized, scalable law firm filing system.  And in general, you have two categories of software tools to choose from.

  1. Basic Cloud Storage
  2. Document Management Software

We’ll cover the advantages and disadvantages of both.

What Is Basic Cloud Storage?

In its simplest form, basic cloud storage is a cloud-based filing cabinet. These tools provide simple online storage for your firm’s documents, much like your C: drive. Basic cloud storage includes services such as:

By using one of these platforms to organize your legal files, you would create a set of top-level folders to use across your firm. Then, a new folder for each client or matter. All of your documents would be stored in their respective folders and accessed via a web browser or app.

Pros

  • Low-Cost
  • Easy to Setup and Use
  • Simple Integrations with Productivity Software

Cons

  • No Matter-Centric Organization
  • No Document Metadata
  • Limited Document Search
  • No Email Management
  • Frequent Sync/Conflict Issues
  • Limited Version Management

Related Video:  The Problem With Basic Cloud Storage

Basic cloud storage may be an easy entry-point for solo or very small law firms.  However, midsize and larger firms, or those wanting more control over their files may find these tools lacking. For example, basic cloud storage tools may lack critical functionality such as full-text search, document profiling/metadata, version management, and email management.

RelatedBasic Cloud Storage vs. Document Management Software – Learn the differences and advantages of each solution.

What Is a Document Management System?

If you feel you need more than basic cloud storage, the best solution is a document management system or DMS. This is a robust system that not only stores your documents but enables you to manage them effectively.

A DMS offers everything you need to manage all of your legal files, including emails. These solutions offer a wide range of features, including client/matter-centric organization, document tagging, full-text search, file check-in/out, permissions/access management, email management, and so much more.

One of the key features of a DMS is the ability to organize your files by legal matter automatically. As a result, every file you need for each matter is conveniently placed in one location and ready when you need it.

Pros

  • Matter-Centric Organization
  • Full-Text Search
  • Version Management
  • Document Metadata / Profiling
  • Document Check-Out / In
  • Integrated Email Management
  • Enhanced Data Security

Cons

  • Higher Investment
  • Document Migration Required
  • Team Training Required

RelatedBest Legal Document Management Software – See our exclusive list of the best DMS apps for law firms.

Don’t Forget About Email

As you think about the best way to organize your law firm’s documents, cases and files, don’t forget about email.  Emails are documents too, and your overarching legal file organization strategy should include a way to similarly organize emails.  Ideally, you’ll want a system that allows you to:

  • Save matter-related emails to that matter
  • Save emails alongside, but separate from documents
  • Review and search across saved emails

RelatedEmail Management for Law Firms – A complete guide on how to organize and manage email in a growing law firm.

Putting Together Your New Legal Filing System

Whether you’re going full cloud or starting with a paper-lite approach, there are some steps you should take to put together your new and improved legal filing system. Let’s get started.

1. Clean Up Your Paper Files

Regardless of the storage method you’ve decided upon, the first step is to take stock of and clean up your paper files. This step may be time-consuming and that’s okay. It’s a critical step in improving your law firm file organization.

Declutter & Purge

You’ll need to take the time to go through all of your files and determine what’s necessary to keep and what you can get rid of. We recommend checking your local policies for file retention before doing so.

Go ahead and get rid of any of the documents you no longer use or need. After the purge, you should already feel a bit lighter.

Hard Copy Retention Policy

As mentioned earlier when we discussed going paperless, now is the time to decide how long you’ll keep any hard copies you receive from here on out. For example, you may choose to keep client hard copies for 30 days after a matter is closed. Once you decide on your retention policy, stick to it.

Be sure to communicate this retention policy to all of your new clients so they have the option to get their hard copies back if they want them.

What Do I Do With the Paper I Have Left?

Great question! If you plan on going 100% paperless, you can start scanning those files into your new system. And if you plan on keeping some physical files, you’ll need to decide how you’re going to file them to improve your system. Jump forward to the next step.

2. Outline & Document Your File Intake & Storage Process

Next, you’ll need to outline and document your new file intake and storage process. This includes the entire process from the receipt of a document to the filing of the document.

For the Paperless Approach

For a paperless approach, the best way forward is to follow this simple workflow:

For example, if you receive a document from a client, you should then scan it, OCR it, and then save it to your new file system under the specific matter it belongs to. Determine this process for all other document sources such as email, incoming electronic files, and in-office generated documents.

Next, document this process. You’ll want to be able to share it with your entire team so everyone is following the same storage method.

For the Paper-Lite Approach

Your new document retention policy will come into play here. Decide which physical files you’ll want to keep from here on out. For simplicity’s sake, we recommend only storing physical files when absolutely necessary. For example, your client may have requested you keep physical copies.

You’ll then need to determine how you’ll categorize and store these files. For example, will you place them in a folder based on case number? Client name? Date? However you categorize them, it should be consistent and simple.

3. Train Your Legal Team

A new legal filing system is only effective if it’s followed. With your new system documented and everything in place, it’s time to train your legal team.

Make sure everyone on your team is aware of which physical documents are staying and which ones can go. Communicate your new file naming convention to ensure paper files are as consistent as your electronic files.

Now is also a great time to determine your training process for future team members. As your team grows, you’ll want to ensure your new filing system is protected and stays consistent.

File (Document) Naming Conventions

Next, we’ll answer the often asked question: What should our document/file naming convention be? 

Law firms that don’t have a proper Document Management System often try to adopt script, often over-engineered file (document) naming conventions.  For instance, over time, a law firm might attempt to include the following elements in every document/file name:

  • Related client or matter
  • Type of document (contract, order, etc.)
  • Version
  • Subject
  • Related Parties

Over time, this creates long, unwieldy files names such as:

  • XYZCo-IPMatter-Patent-Fililng-USPTO-V3.docx

The problem with this approach is that the law firm is trying to cram a lot of metadata into the name of the file.  Doing so is using the wrong tool for the job.

A proper DMS includes functionality for tagging and profiling documents as needed, and allows you to code things like Document Type, Status, Matter and so forth in the DMS.

This not only declutters the visual overview of your matter documents, but makes filtering, sorting and searching documents much easier.

By way of example, here is a particular matter in LexWorkplace with a number of documents.  Many of the documents have been given a Type, Status and or Tag, making important elements of each document visible at a glance.

So coming back to the original question:  What should your file naming convention be?  The answer is:  With a proper law firm Document Management System, it doesn’t matter.  Filenames are largely unimportant, so our advice is keep them short and sweet.

LexWorkplace: Simplified & Efficient Law Firm File Organization

If you’re ready to overhaul your legal filing system, we recommend implementing a robust, matter-centric document management system within your firm. 

Looking for Document Management Software?

LexWorkplace:

Modern Document Management for Law Firms

LexWorkplace is document & email management software, born in the cloud and built for law firms.

Organize by Client & Matter

Organize documents, email and notes by client or matter. Store and manage all data for a case or project in one place.

Go Beyond Basic Files & Folders

Supercharge your firm’s productivity with true DMS functions.

  • Version Management
  • Document Tagging & Profiling
  • Document Check-Out / Check-In
  • Microsoft Office Integration

Search Everything

LexWorkplace is like Google for your law firm.  Search across millions of pages, documents, folder email and notes in seconds. Refine your search by matter, document type, author and more.

Seamless Outlook Integration

Save emails to a matter without leaving Outlook. Saved emails are accessible to your entire team.

Organize Email With Folders & Notes

Organize matter-related emails into subfolders. Add notes to call out important emails.

Works with Windows and Macs

LexWorkplace is 100% compatible with Mac OS and Windows.

LexWorkplace Features

The legal industry has had to put up with dated, clunky document management systems for too long.

No more.

With LexWorkplace, you’ll have access to a wide range of features, including:

  • A Terabyte of Storage: LexWorkplace starts with 1TB of storage for your firm, giving you plenty of room to grow.
  • Advanced security: LexWorkplace encrypts your data in transit and at rest. It also includes enhanced security measures such as permission setting capabilities and two-factor authentication.
  • Geographic redundancy: We have multiple independent data centers across North America. This means we can securely back up your data, so you can trust your data is available to you no matter what happens next.
  • Document tracking IDs: Each file you save to LexWorkplace has a unique ID for easy document tracking.
  • One-click functionality: LexWorkplace can help you move faster. View, edit, and save your documents with a single click, no re-upload required.
  • Document check-in/out: Want to make changes to a document without others doing so at the same time? By checking out a document, you can make the changes you need to make without others on your team interfering. Then, just check the document back in when you’re finished.
  • Version management: LexWorkplace will automatically track each version of your documents, so you can see when changes were made and by whom.
  • Profiling and tagging: You can easily set document types and statuses for each of your files. Plus, you can create tags to keep documents organized based on your firm’s needs.
  • Recent file prioritization: LexWorkplace will place your recent files front and center, so you can easily return to your work. Or, you can set certain documents as important for easy access.
  • Email management capabilities: Easily save emails to each matter file straight from Outlook. Plus, LexWorkplace will provide instant deduplication, so you can avoid saving multiples of the same email. It’s a time-consuming process that LexWorkplace automates on your behalf.

Get in Touch

Want to learn more?  Watch the demo below, or get in touch with our team to learn more about LexWorkplace for your firm.

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